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Bruce Lisker conviction overturned by federal judge

August 7, 2009 |  2:10 pm

A federal judge today overturned the conviction of a San Fernando Valley man serving a life prison sentence for the 1983 murder of his mother, ruling that he should either be retried or set free.

U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips concluded that Bruce Lisker, 44, was convicted on “false evidence” and that his attorney — now a court commissioner — failed to adequately represent him at trial.

“Oh my God, I am absolutely elated,” Lisker said in a telephone interview from Mule Creek State Prison, near Sacramento. “It’s bittersweet: jubilation tempered by how long I’ve been in here.”

A hearing is scheduled for Monday to decide whether Lisker should be released on bail while prosecutors determine whether to appeal Phillips’ ruling or to retry him.

A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, which has been defending Lisker’s conviction, was not immediately available for comment.

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the L.A. County district attorney, declined to comment. A deputy district attorney, however, had filed a court declaration last month stating that she was prepared to refile the charges if the conviction was overturned.

“I pray that I will be tasting my rightful freedom again,” said Lisker, adding that he would welcome a retrial. “Bring it.” As part of her ruling, Phillips accepted the findings and recommendations in two detailed reports about the case from U.S. Magistrate Ralph Zarefsky.

In his analysis, Zarefsky concluded that no convincing evidence remains to sustain Lisker’s conviction. A jury hearing the case today, he said, “would know that there is essentially no evidence of [Lisker’s] guilt.”

The judge’s findings mirrored those of a seven-month Times investigation published in 2005, which undermined key elements of the prosecution’s case against Lisker and exposed the LAPD’s investigation into the slaying of his 66-year-old mother as sloppy and incomplete.

Even the man who prosecuted Lisker more than 25 years ago now admits that he has “reasonable doubt” about Lisker’s guilt. On March 10, 1983, there was good reason to suspect that Lisker — then 17 — might have committed the crime.

He had a history of drug abuse and fighting with his mother. His parents had paid for him to live in a studio apartment several miles from the family’s Sherman Oaks home. And he was the first to report to authorities that his mother, Dorka, had been beaten and stabbed.

Lisker told police that he went to his parents’ home to borrow a jack so he could fix his car. While there, he said, he looked through windows at the back of the house and saw his mother lying on the floor. Because the doors were locked, Lisker said, he broke in to tend to her. Though she was still alive, she had been badly beaten and stabbed in the back. He called for paramedics.

The detective in the case, Andrew R. Monsue, didn’t believe the frizzy-haired teenager’s story and arrested him that afternoon. At the time, the prosecution’s case hinged largely on four elements: Blood spatter on his clothes implicated him; he confessed to a jailhouse informant; bloody shoe prints placed only him at the scene; and it was impossible for him to have seen his mother lying on the floor from outside the house.

At an evidentiary hearing in Zarefsky’s courtroom in December 2005, each of those elements was seriously challenged. Blood spatter on Lisker was as consistent “with his innocence” as with his guilt, the magistrate concluded. Experiments, first done by Times reporters, proved that Lisker could have seen his mother from the window, according to expert testimony.

Testimony from an LAPD analyst and an FBI expert also undermined the prosecution’s contention that only Lisker’s shoe prints were found at the scene. A bloody print found in the bathroom of the Lisker house was proved not to have been made by Lisker’s shoes, they said.

Additionally, that print appeared to match an apparent shoe impression on the victim’s head, according to the LAPD analyst. Zarefsky also found that Det. Monsue inexplicably dismissed another “likely suspect” who lied about his whereabouts at the time of the murder, admitted being in a knife fight on the day of the crime and acknowledged going to the victim’s house and talking to her the day before the slaying.

That suspect, Michael Ryan, who had a long history of violence, later killed himself. Phone records from the Lisker home show that a call was made minutes before the murder — the number matched that of Ryan’s mother, except for the last digit and the area code, which wasn’t dialed. “ ... There is a strong suggestion that someone else was responsible for the crime,” Zarefsky said. “In such circumstances, it is more probable than not that no reasonable juror would find [Lisker] guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The attorney general, arguing in support of the conviction, has pointed to confessions that Lisker made while trying to secure a plea deal and while seeking parole. Zarefsky dismissed Lisker’s confessions, calling them “self-serving when they were made and unaccompanied by verifying details.”

Lisker has long said his admissions were bogus, and desperate, attempts to get out of prison. If prosecutors do decide to retry Lisker, they would undoubtedly face a more vigorous defense than Lisker’s attorney provided more than two decades ago. For one thing, the credibility of two key prosecution witnesses — Monsue and the jailhouse informant — has been severely undermined.

Even LAPD officials, in recent years, have privately acknowledged that the lead detective did a poor job of investigating the case.  Lisker’s attorney said today that he was gratified by Phillips’ ruling. His client’s long legal battle to clear his name appears all but over, he said. “He’s won,” said attorney William Genego. “And it’s about time.”

-- Scott Glover and Matt Lait

More on The Times' investigation of the Lisker case:

New light on a distant verdict

Documents in the case

Jurors now feel they knew too little